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Kenneth Hesketh, Luke Bedford, Alban Berg: Nicholas Hodges (piano), Clare Booth (soprano), Clio Gould (violin), London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 30.05.2006 (AO)


Kenneth Hesketh’s Detail from the Record is part of a much larger work in progress, a ballet for puppets based on Japanese folk tales, to be called The Record of Ancient Matters (Ko Ji Ki). Without context, it may be hard to evaluate this 13 minute segment, covering four different sections. Fortunately, it does not attempt any self conscious “Japanese” effects but focuses on the inherent whimsy of tales about badgers and sprites. It’s direct and uncomplicated. Situations seem to arise from within the music itself, which are resolved into colourful tableaux, like dialogues for double bass and viola, for bass clarinet and double bassoon. A cheerful line, sometimes carried by clarinet, sometimes horn, sometimes flute, pushes the work forward. I’m not sure it works so well as a stand alone, but it’s a good taster for the eventual ballet, originally commissioned for Oliver Knussen’s birthday.

Still in his twenties, Luke Bedford has quite a following and his new work, completed only some months ago, showed why. Or Voir Tout En Aventure was written as part of the Sinfonietta’s Blue Touch Paper project funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and PRS Foundation. What is it about medieval language that so fascinates composers? Perhaps it is the mixture of familiarity and alienation, sparking an imaginative response to what Bedford calls “the sheer strangeness of the words and their distance from us”. We think we can make out words and phrases, yet it is a world very different from ours. It lends itself well to music which is strikingly new, yet universal in its emotional impact. Indeed, these 14th century songs are about music, and adapting to changes ”when everything is uncontrolled” (the literal translation of “Or voir tout en aventure”).

What makes these songs work so well is that the vocal part is written with a real instinct for the natural resonance of the human voice. Voice is not a mere component of a musical whole, for it is “more” than just sound. Claire Booth showed this beautifully, her rich, nuanced expressiveness connecting directly to an emotional depth more complex than the text alone. She seems to embody the feelings behind the music itself – an abundant faith in the power of music as communication that goes beyond restraints of time and place. Bedford stretches the technical limits but not to an extent that the natural flow is distorted: but it is Booth’s musical instinct that colours and warms her singing that makes it sensually as well as intellectually challenging. The use of accordion is interesting, for it, too, like the human voice, is an instrument that uses “lungs” to breathe life into its sounds. Similarly, the barrel machine creates rain like sounds from a deep container mainly filled with air. Needless to say, the winds were superb – flute and oboe in particular. The orchestration is subtle, interspersed with shining details on triangle and xylophone. This is a lovely piece of music, full of character, which I hope will find its way into the repertoire.

Indeed, Berg’s Chamber Concerto celebrated the winds: Clio Gould and Nicholas Hodges appeared as soloists and the rest of the orchestra got to go home early. Knussen kept the ebb and flow between soloists and orchestra fairly fluid, and the transits between themes were less stark. It made for a surprisingly undogmatic interpretation, bringing some lyrical playing from flute and clarinet. The performance was interrupted several times by a problem with the loudspeakers, but Knussen continued without missing a beat. Later, he was to say, he decided not to stop because there was a “story” in the piece unfolding, “……many stories”, referring to the secret programmes and cryptography behind the work. Hence, perhaps, the warmth of the reading rather than a clinical evisceration. Despite the distraction, the final movement was very well played, Hodges letting the reverberations of the piano echo, lingering on as the orchestra joined in, Gould’s violin soaring above. This was of course in typical Berg fashion, repeated three times, until the music slowly tapered off. Just as the evening started with Hesketh’s tribute to Knusssen on his birthday, it ended with Berg’s tribute to Schoenberg on his own.


Anne Ozorio


 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)